Mindhunter opens with what we now, after Seven and Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, recognize as a David Fincher sequence. The camera surveying the scene from above. Rain coating the streets. Darkness shrouding the frame. Fincher can’t be credited with inventing the serial-killer thriller, but he’s logged the most frequent-flier miles on the genre. In Zodiac, perhaps the best film of his career, we get the clearest window into his thinking, an interest in cracking impenetrable codes and obsessing over whatever obscure detail might provide insight into a complex and seemingly diseased mind. He seeks to explain the inexplicable, no matter how far down the rabbit hole it leads him.
Fincher isn’t the creator of Mindhunter — that would be Joe Penhall, working from Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas’s book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit — but he’s the executive producer and the director of this first episode, which operates within his well-established visual template. Having already established how detectives work serial-killer cases — not only in his own films, but in The Silence of the Lambs and other thrillers, too — Fincher is now reaching back to understand the fundamental building blocks that inform a modern investigation. It’s worth knowing how the techniques we take for granted in these procedurals came to pass.
In theory, anyway. The first episode does the grunt work of setting up the buttoned-down world of the show, and it’s only in the last section that its two main characters, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), come together. It’s compelling enough for a start, though drawn from broad observations about the FBI and the culture (and counterculture) it’s having more and more trouble understanding. For his part, Holden acts like a sentient pair of pressed pants, though among the square-jawed tacticians at Quantico, he might as well be Wavy Gravy. When his new girlfriend Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross) offers him a bong for the first time, Holden’s response says it all: He’s never smoked before, but he tentatively makes the attempt, hacking like hell on the intake. He may seems like an impossible square, but at least he’s making the effort.
Meanwhile, what makes the opening scene fascinating and surprising is that it isn’t a serial-killer scenario. It’s about a guy off his meds who takes hostages and winds up shooting himself in the head after a tense standoff with the police and with Holden, who acts as a hostage negotiator. The significance of the scene has nothing to do with Holden gaining any insight into the criminal mind, but with what the FBI considers a successful outcome. His boss is pleased because nobody died but the crazy person with the sawed-off shotgun; Holden believes no one should have died at all. He isn’t satisfied with the approach of the police, which is authoritarian and adversarial, escalating tension with a bullhorn and a phalanx of armed men rather than bringing it down to a manageable level. But he’s also dissatisfied with his own approach, which seems to be missing some elusive insight.
Mindhunter takes place in an era when the mass murders perpetrated by men like Charles Manson and David Berkowitz were starting to defy the standard motivating factors. It’s easy enough to understand why someone commits a crime of passion, but what about the guy who claims the dog made him do it? Holden wants to ask question after question after question about it: What’s his life story? What are the social conditions that are giving rise to serial murder? What steps need to be taken to rationalize seemingly irrational behavior? For him, it’s no longer enough to call a person “crazy” or “evil” and talk about success in terms of limiting the body count. The times, they are a-changin’, and it’s his belief that the FBI needs to change with them. The bureau can’t be full of the law-and-order types trained to take down the John Dillingers of the past. It has to also understand the nuances of the criminal mind.
To that end, “Episode 1” sends Holden to college in Charlottesville to audit some criminal psychology classes, though his boss will only acquiesce to his request if he does some recruitment on the side. For faculty and students already suspicious of the straight-arrow on campus, his side job threatens to undermine his main mission, but he takes what he can get. The important thing to know about Holden at this point isn’t what he learns so much as as openness to learning from any source available — be it academics, be it behavioral experts in the bureau like Bill, be it cops experiencing this violence at ground level. The most promising aspect of this first hour is Holden and Bill’s time wrestling with a serial-killer case in Fairfield, Iowa, where these concerns shift from the theoretical to the real. And that’s the space Mindhunter will occupy once it’s up and running.
Less promising is Holden’s relationship with Debbie, the pot-smoking postgrad who’s there to add a few wrinkles to his stuffed shirt. Their opposites-attract dynamic is clunky, from the jarring shift into stylized dialogue during their first meeting at a bar (shades of Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, sans Aaron Sorkin) to obvious details like Debbie peeling off in a Volkswagen Beetle, the official car of hippiedom. She currently seems too much like a symbol of Holden’s prerogative to alter his thinking rather than a flesh-and-blood human being with her own agenda. Here’s hoping she’ll grow into a real character, not just part of his journey.
• Relative to Fincher’s history as a pioneer in title sequences — the juttering fragmentation of Seven, the circuitry of the mind in Fight Club, the gleaming formal lettering of Panic Room — the opening credits in Mindhunter are a huge disappointment. We get the meticulous rendering of a recording device, interrupted by some flashes of violence, and that’s it. As straightforward as Holden’s suits.
• Holden’s extreme reaction to the tiny amount of blood on his sleeve may be telling. Perhaps it speaks to his inexperience with the more visceral aspects of working in the field. Perhaps it speaks to his shame in allowing any blood to spill at all. Or maybe there’s some deeper psychological instability the show has yet to expose.
• Holden’s role-playing game with his students is a fascinating debacle. For one, it reveals how difficult changing the culture at Quantico will be, given how prone his students are to confrontation and tactical violence. But the show also sneaks in some commentary on the racial make-up of the bureau (“for the purpose of this exercise, I’m imagining I’m a Negro”) and the obvious barriers that presents for justice.
• “What does a broomstick in the ass of a dirt-poor single mom mean?” A crude question, but maybe the central question of the show. Buckle up.